“Heavier and weirder than its predecessors… they’ve struggled to shake off Tool comparisons – but now they sound far more like themselves”: Wheel’s Charismatic Leaders

Fourth album sees leader James Lascelles taking on weighty subjects, backed up by equally weighty music

Wheel – Charismatic Leaders
(Image: © InsideOut)

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In a recent edition of Prog, Wheel bandleader James Lascelles assured readers that the Anglo-Finnish trio’s fourth album is heavier and weirder than its predecessors. It’s pleasing that such a weighty promise has been kept.

The loose concept of Charismatic Leaders explores various cults of personalities, from media oligarchs to politicians and beyond. Since 2021 album Resident Human, Lascelles says he has watched such figures take an increasingly influential role on society, and his blend of fascination with and hatred for them steers the record’s emotional turbulence.

Empire is a hyper-aggressive opener aimed at the Rupert Murdoch dynasty. Admittedly, it cuts very close to the bone of 2019’s Vultures – albeit at a more accelerated pace – but it’s entertaining nevertheless. A powerful one-note breakdown delivers a strong finale.

But it’s not until the second track, Porcelain, that fans of more intricate and less metallic songwriting will start to be won over. There’s a deep, blooming tonality to its clean guitars, while Lascelles’ floating vocals offer a fine juxtaposition to the rattling bass that lurks beneath.

Hints of their lineage remain… they’re far rarer and part of a much more widescreen picture

Since the start of their career, Wheel have struggled to shake off Tool comparisons; but here they sound far more like themselves and less like anyone else. Naturally, hints of their lineage remain; but they’re far rarer and part of a much more widescreen picture when – during Submission’s frenetic closing stages and Discipline’s bass-led intro – they properly emerge. They feels like breakthrough moments. 

After the eastern acoustic guitars of prelude Caught In The Afterglow, the trio pull their final card, and by far their most ambitious play to date: The Freeze is about watching disaster unfold miles away from you and feeling powerless. Its opening chord progression is aptly chilling, then clean guitars, wavered with some gentle effects, chime through its open atmosphere with a subtly off-kilter pulse.

Submission takes the opposite tack – the rhythm section adding to instead of opposing its delicacy as it ever-so-patiently builds. Lascelles sounds deeply connected to his lyrics along the way, crooning: ‘What did you hope to find? Earth below, youth behind’ with its undercurrent of instrumentals growing more agitated during each repeat.

It takes half of its nearly 11-minute playtime to get out of third gear; and the string-bending riff which follows feels suitably gigantic as a result. An atonal, jazz-twisted solo then takes its place as the band end the record in profound fashion.

It’s one that will likely silence many of their longstanding critics – and possibly convert some too.

Charismatic Leaders in on sale now via InsideOut.

Phil Weller

You can usually find this Prog scribe writing about the heavier side of the genre, chatting to bands for features and news pieces or introducing you to exciting new bands that deserve your attention. Elsewhere, Phil can be found on stage with progressive metallers Prognosis or behind a camera teaching filmmaking skills to young people.